- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

Brian MacLellan paused for six seconds, long enough to wipe a tear that had begun to well in his right eye.

MacLellan’s first season as the Washington Capitals‘ general manager came to an end last week, when his team was eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the New York Rangers in the second round. After originally describing the season as one that brought him mixed emotions, MacLellan, over 20 minutes into a season-ending press conference on Monday, doubled back to the topic of his first year in charge.

That was enough to cause him to pause, collect his thoughts and forge on.

“Has it been a year? It’s been a whirlwind. It’s flown by, warp speed. It’s been fun,” he said, before wavering. “Sorry. It’s satisfying to see where we’ve come to the end of the year, to see the guys after the Islanders series. It’s good.”

Though the results were much of the same for the Capitals — another inability to advance to the Eastern Conference Final, especially after leading the best-of-seven series by two games after Game 4 — MacLellan was confident that this season actually wasn’t.

He pointed to the reconstruction of the team under first-year coach Barry Trotz, as well as the coming together of several players who, he said, “had some issues at the end of last year” under former coach Adam Oates.

The Capitals captured the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division, won 45 regular-season games and cracked the 100-point mark in the standings for the first time in four years.

For MacLellan, though, it’s about looking forward, which he’ll have an opportunity to do once his exit interviews with players conclude early this week. Among the biggest decisions he’ll have to make is what to do with the Capitals‘ slew of pending free agents — some unrestricted, leaving them free to sign anywhere, and some restricted, meaning they’re likely in line for a modest salary increase.

All of that will come in the shadow of a salary cap that, because of the weakening Canadian dollar, won’t grow as much as teams had originally projected.

“I think there’s a little bit of insecurity there,” MacLellan said. “The league says we’re going to be somewhere between $70 [million] and $71 million, and I think, most of our projections, we plan on that, but down deep, you’re a little insecure it might come in lower. I hope it doesn’t, but we’ll plan to leave a little bit of room in case it does.”

Seven players — wingers Joel Ward and Curtis Glencross, centers Eric Fehr and Jay Beagle, and defensemen Mike Green, Tim Gleason and John Erskine — will be free to sign anywhere once the new league year begins on July 1. Goaltender Braden Holtby, left wing Marcus Johansson, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Nate Schmidt will also watch as their contracts expire, though the team essentially has the right to match any deal they’re offered.

The biggest questions concern Green, a longtime face of the franchise, and Holtby, perhaps its next star. MacLellan said Green could return if he could accept a salary commensurate with his role as the fifth defenseman, but that Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, out all season after having surgery on his left wrist, are in line to replace him.

As for Holtby, the 25-year-old goaltender who set a variety of team records this season is in line for a hefty bump from his $2 million salary. Though he could conceivably receive up to $5 million on a one-year bridge deal, MacLellan said the team would like to work out a long-term contract with the goaltender, identifying him as one of their biggest building blocks going forward.

“I think he’s going to be a priority for us,” MacLellan said. “Obviously, he’s a big part of what’s gone on this year. I think the development of Braden’s been tremendous. Personally and as a player, I think he represents pretty much everything you want in a team’s goaltending.”

Beagle, the third-line center through much of the postseason, and Fehr, who missed much of it with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, are players MacLellan thinks the Capitals could lock up quickly. That could also be the case with Johansson and Kuznetsov, who the team wants back, but Ward’s negotiations could be more difficult.

Though he again showed his value during the postseason, scoring three goals with six assists, Ward is 34 and likely will be seeking one final contract. The duration of the contract will likely be an issue for both sides, as Washington won’t want to offer him too long a deal while Ward wouldn’t be wise to accept one for one or two years.

MacLellan said he doesn’t project to buy out any contracts to create additional salary cap room, but he did suggest the Capitals may be active in the trade market. While Ward was a viable stopgap during the playoffs, MacLellan believes he may be able to pick up a top-line right wing from another team, considering that item the only one on his summer shopping list.

Otherwise, his pitch to the players with expiring contracts will be simple: Do it for the team.

“I think it’s important for players that they realize that we’ve had a successful team, and if they believe that we have a chance moving forward to win a championship, that they recognize that going for max dollars — which you could make the choice to do in certain situations — that it would hinder our ability to compete going forward,” MacLellan said.

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